Christian Horner wants his Red Bull future to be resolved “as soon as possible” as the embattled team principal fights to save his Formula One career.

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner is being investigated following an accusation of “inappropriate behaviour” by a female colleague. Horner denies the claim.

Horner addressed the media alongside four other F1 team principals on the second day of this week’s three-day test in Bahrain on Thursday. The new season starts in the Gulf kingdom next Saturday.

Asked why he has not moved aside as team principal and chief executive of Red Bull Racing with the investigation under way, Horner replied: “As you are well aware there is a process going on which I form part of, and as I form part of that process, I am afraid I cannot comment on it.”

Horner was then asked if he could provided a timeline as to when the investigation might be over.

The 50-year-old added: “I am dreadfully sorry but I really can’t comment on the process or the timescale.

“Everybody would like a conclusion as soon as possible. But I am really not at liberty to comment about the process.”

Sources have indicated to the PA news agency that there could be a resolution before the opening race on March 2.

On Wednesday, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff called for Red Bull’s probe to be transparent, and said the controversy is “an issue for all of Formula One”.

McLaren chief executive Zak Brown, speaking in the same press conference as Horner on Thursday, echoed Wolff’s comments.

“The allegations are extremely serious,” said Brown. “McLaren hold themselves to the highest standards of diversity, equality and inclusion.

“These are extremely important to us and our partners, and to everyone in Formula One.

“Red Bull Corporation has launched an investigation, and all we hope and assume is that it will be handled in a very transparent way, and as the FIA and Formula One has said, swiftly, because these are not the headlines that Formula One wants or needs at this time.”

Red Bull won all but one of the 22 races last year as Max Verstappen stormed to the world championship.

The Dutch driver, in his heavily upgraded machine, set an impressive pace on the opening day in Bahrain, finishing 1.1 seconds clear of anyone else.

Mercedes’ George Russell said: “Red Bull are definitely the favourites and definitely a step ahead of everyone here in Bahrain. They have had an impressive winter, no doubt.

“Hopefully Red Bull are already in that sweet spot, and we can close the gap, but it is going to take a lot of hard work to do so.”

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has called for Red Bull’s investigation into Christian Horner to be transparent – and said the controversy is “an issue for all of Formula One”.

Horner is under investigation by the racing team’s parent company Red Bull GmbH following a claim of “inappropriate behaviour” by a female colleague.

The 50-year-old emphatically denies the accusation and remains in his role as Red Bull team principal.

He is in Bahrain for this week’s three-day test ahead of the opening race, also in the Gulf Kingdom, on March 2.

And Horner has stated it is his intention to be in his post for the start of the new campaign.

“It is clear,” Wolff said when asked to address the allegations during the lunch interval on the first day of testing.

“Formula One and the teams stand for inclusion, equality, fairness and diversity, and that is not only about talking about it, but living it day in, day out. These are just standards we set ourselves.

“We are a global sport and one of the most important sport platforms in the world and role models, too.

“But having said that, there is a lot of speculation that has been happening over the past weeks, and lots of things that are going on.

“What is important at that stage is for a process with rigour. I think what Red Bull has started as an independent investigation, if this is done in the right way, with transparency, that is something we need to look at.

“What the outcomes are, what it means for Formula One, and how we can learn from that because we want to talk about racing cars, and we want to talk about the sport, rather than these very, very critical topics that are more than just a team issue.

“It is phenomenon, and an issue for all of Formula One, and every individual that works out there.”

Horner is due to be in the media spotlight at an F1 press conference alongside four other team principals on Thursday.

Speaking at Red Bull’s car launch, last week, Horner said he was unable to provide a timeline as to when the investigation will be completed.

It is understood both Red Bull and Horner are keen for a swift resolution, but sources have indicated that a conclusion is not imminent. F1 bosses have called for the controversy to be “clarified at the earliest opportunity”.

Max Verstappen put Red Bull’s off-track troubles to one side by setting the pace in the opening session on Wednesday.

The three-time world champion ended the running nearly seven tenths quicker than Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso in third, eight tenths back, and the only other driver within one second of Verstappen.

George Russell was sixth for Mercedes, 1.68 secs off the pace. Lewis Hamilton gets his first taste of the final Mercedes he will drive on Thursday ahead of his blockbuster switch to Ferrari next year.

Max Verstappen put Red Bull’s off-track troubles to one side by setting the pace in the opening testing session in Bahrain.

Red Bull’s preparations for the new campaign have been overshadowed by allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” against team principal Christian Horner.

Horner, who is in Bahrain for this week’s three-day test ahead of the opening round, also in the Gulf kingdom, on March 2, emphatically denies the accusations made by a female colleague.

Verstappen won 19 of the 22 races last season as he wrapped up his third world championship, and the Dutch driver laid down an early marker by topping the time charts in his heavily revised Red Bull.

The 26-year-old ended the running nearly seven tenths quicker than Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso in third, eight tenths back, and the only other driver within one second of Verstappen.

McLaren’s Oscar Piastri finished fourth, while George Russell was sixth for Mercedes, 1.68 secs off the pace.

Lewis Hamilton gets his first taste of the last Mercedes he will drive on Thursday ahead of his blockbuster switch to Ferrari next year.

Although headline times in testing have to be treated with a degree of caution – as the teams trial different fuel loads and tyre compounds – Verstappen appeared settled in the machine he hopes will carry him to a fourth consecutive title.

His lap count of 65 was more than a race distance in Bahrain. Alonso (77 laps) managed the most miles of the 10 drivers on track.

During a relatively trouble-free first session for the majority of the field, Alex Albon broke down in his Williams following a reliability failure with 20 minutes remaining.

The final four hours of the opening day begins at 1500 local time (1200GMT).

A defiant Christian Horner said he will not be forced out of Red Bull – and vowed to be in his post as team principal for the first Formula One race of the season.

Horner broke his silence on Thursday after an investigation was launched into an allegation of “inappropriate behaviour” against him by a female colleague.

The 50-year-old, speaking at Red Bull’s car launch in Milton Keynes, revealed he had been “overwhelmed” by messages of goodwill from within the sport, and said his wife, former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, has been “very supportive”.

He also continued to emphatically deny the allegations made against him.

Asked if he will be in Bahrain for the first round of Max Verstappen’s championship defence on March 2, Horner replied: “Yes. I will be in Bahrain.

“The process has been going on in the background. Obviously, there’s been a day job to be getting on with, which is gearing up for the season ahead of us.

“I have a hugely supportive family, a very supportive wife. I have felt the support from within the business and our partners, and the support from within the industry has been overwhelming, too.

“I am confident in the process, which I have fully complied with and will continue to do so, and absolutely deny any of the allegations that have been made against me.

“For me, it is business as normal. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

Direct questions relating to the internal investigation launched by Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmBH – which leaves Horner’s career in the balance – were strictly off-limits.

Horner has been in charge of the F1 team for two decades, but he insisted the investigation has not forced him to ponder resigning.

“Not at all, absolutely not,” said Horner when asked if he had considered his role as team principal and chief executive of the racing team.

“I am fully committed. I built this team. I convinced people to come and work here.

“I’ve been here since the beginning. There have been highs and lows along the way. We have won 113 races. We have won seven drivers’ world championships. We’ve won six constructors’ world championships in 19 seasons, and that’s in the history books.

“But it’s about what lies ahead, because that’s what’s important. So my focus is on the future.”

There had been a strong desire for Horner’s future to be concluded before Thursday’s presentation which marked the 20th anniversary of Red Bull’s involvement as a constructor in the sport.

Horner, who was quizzed by a lawyer for eight hours last Friday, said he did not know when the probe will be concluded.

There will be three days of testing, starting next Wednesday, in Bahrain ahead of the first race, also in the Gulf kingdom. And sources have indicated Horner could face further rounds of questioning as he bids to prove his innocence.

The investigation against Horner has undoubtedly overshadowed the world champions’ preparations for the forthcoming campaign.

Last year, Red Bull won all but one of the 22 races, with Verstappen taking his third world title in as many years.

But the Dutch driver, 26, said: “I don’t feel it (the investigation) has been a distraction.

“Everyone is very focused and very motivated. The spirit in the team has been fantastic. It’s been honestly better than ever.”

Pressed on his relationship with Horner, the triple world champion added: “It is very good.

“We’ve seen each other quite a few times. We’ve achieved a lot of things together so that doesn’t change suddenly.

“My contact with Christian has been the same as on the first day. It’s been like normal.”

Max Verstappen believes Lewis Hamilton’s swansong season with Mercedes will be “awkward” following his rival’s 2025 transfer to Ferrari.

Hamilton stunned the sporting world by ditching Mercedes – the constructor which has carried him to six of his record-equalling seven world championships – in favour of a move to Ferrari next year.

On Wednesday, the 39-year-old Briton made his first public appearance since news of his shock transfer broke. Hamilton said he is determined to fire Mercedes back to former glories before he trades silver for red.

But speaking at Red Bull’s car launch on Thursday, reigning world champion Verstappen believes Mercedes will be forced to omit Hamilton from some meetings during the forthcoming 24-round campaign.

“For the rest of the year, I would say it’s a little bit awkward,” said Verstappen.

“It’s not like they are suddenly enemies. He has achieved so many great things with them. They are still behind him, and for sure he has a great relationship with everyone, especially (Mercedes team principal) Toto (Wolff).

“But he knows at one point, and Toto for sure will tell him: ‘Look, I know we’ve had all this success, but you can’t be part of certain meetings any more’.

“That is normal in F1. It’s probably a bit weird. But you are professional enough to deal with that. And once he’s sitting in the car, they will of course go flat out for him.”

Verstappen, who last year claimed 19 victories from 22 rounds as he secured his third successive title, also believes Hamilton and Ferrari were forced to reveal the tie-up sooner than they would have wished.

The Red Bull star added: “It must have been leaked to announce something that big that early in the season.

“Him going to Ferrari is not really shocking. It’s not a surprise they were talking. I just think the announcement was a bit rushed.”

Verstappen, who gets his first taste of this season’s Red Bull when testing begins in Bahrain next Wednesday, opens his bid to become a four-time world champion at the first race, also in the Gulf kingdom, on March 2.

Christian Horner will face the media on Thursday as an investigation into an allegation of “inappropriate behaviour” against the Red Bull team principal continues.

The embattled boss is due to attend the world champions’ car launch at their Milton Keynes headquarters in what will be his first public appearance since the accusation by a female colleague surfaced at the beginning of last week. Horner, 50, categorically denies the claim.

For now, Horner remains in his role as team principal and was present at a behind-closed-doors Red Bull test at Silverstone on Tuesday ahead of the new season which starts in just over a fortnight.

Red Bull will unveil their new car on Thursday and Horner is expected to address the media – although the PA news agency understands legalities around the process mean that questions relating to the internal investigation will be off-limits.

Last week, Horner was quizzed by a lawyer for eight hours as part of the probe by Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmBH.

There had been a strong desire for Horner’s future to be resolved before Thursday’s launch but sources have indicated that he could face further rounds of questioning as he bids to prove his innocence.

Horner has been Red Bull team principal since they entered F1 19 years ago and is the longest-serving boss on the grid.

During that period he has overseen seven drivers’ world championships and six constructors’ titles. Red Bull have dominated the sport in recent seasons and last year won 21 of the 22 races, with Max Verstappen setting a new record for 10 consecutive victories.

Lando Norris insists he can take the championship fight to Max Verstappen after declaring the Dutchman’s Red Bull team as “beatable”.

McLaren emerged as the closest contender to Red Bull last year following an impressive mid-season turnaround with Norris scoring seven podiums.

The 24-year-old, gearing up for his sixth season on the Formula One grid, last month committed his future to McLaren by signing a contract extension which will keep him with the British team for at least the next three seasons.

Red Bull won all but one of the 22 rounds last season, with Verstappen cruising to his third world title in as many years.

But speaking at McLaren’s car launch on Wednesday, Norris said: “If you were to ask, ‘are Red Bull beatable?’ I am going to have to say ‘yes’.

“We have to believe that because we were very close at times last year and at certain times we did beat them.

“Can we beat them over a season? That is going to be a challenge and very difficult to do because of how well they performed, but I am optimistic.”

Norris and team-mate Oscar Piastri, who impressed in his rookie campaign last season, were provided their first taste of this year’s machine at a Silverstone shakedown test on Wednesday.

McLaren team principal Andrea Stella added: “At the start of the season my expectation of Red Bull is that they will enjoy an advantage.

“I say this because they didn’t develop the car very much last year and I would think it is reasonable to expect that they will have accumulated knowledge and development from last season and bring that to the 2024 car.

“If, and I say if, we continue the development rate from 2023 into 2024, then we can be in a strong position. But whether that is enough to challenge Red Bull and the other top teams who have made improvements, we will find out.”

F1’s sole pre-season test gets under way in Bahrain on February 21, ahead of the opening race, also in the Gulf kingdom, on March 2.

Christian Horner will make his first public appearance on Thursday since an investigation was launched into “inappropriate behaviour” against the Red Bull team principal.

The embattled boss is due to attend the world champions’ car launch at their Milton Keynes headquarters following the accusation by a female colleague which surfaced at the beginning of last week. Horner, 50, categorically denies the claim.

For now, Horner remains in his role as team principal and was present at a behind-closed-doors Red Bull test at Silverstone on Tuesday ahead of the new season which starts in just over a fortnight.

Red Bull will unveil their new car on Thursday and Horner is expected to address the media – although the PA news agency understands legalities around the process mean that questions relating to the internal investigation will be off-limits.

Last week, Horner was quizzed by a lawyer for eight hours as part of the probe by Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmBH.

There had been a strong desire for Horner’s future to be resolved before Thursday’s launch but sources have indicated that he could face further rounds of questioning as he bids to prove his innocence.

Horner has been Red Bull team principal since they entered F1 19 years ago and is the longest-serving boss on the grid.

During that period he has overseen seven drivers’ world championships and six constructors’ titles. Red Bull have dominated the sport in recent seasons and last year won 21 of the 22 races, with Max Verstappen setting a new record for 10 consecutive victories.

Christian Horner maintains Red Bull did not raise any official complaint with the FIA over allegations F1 Academy managing director Susie Wolff and her husband, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, shared confidential information.

A report in Business F1 magazine said there is concern among other Formula One team principals that Toto Wolff has had access to information, via his wife, which is not being shared with them that he is using to his benefit.

In her role at the all-female F1 academy, to which she was appointed in March, Susie Wolff reports directly to F1 president and chief executive Stefano Domenicali.

The FIA announced on Tuesday that its compliance department was “looking in to the matter”.

Susie Wolff issued a statement on social media saying she was left “deeply insulted” by the allegations, which she rejected “in the strongest possible terms.”

Horner has dismissed suggestions Red Bull instigated the action from the FIA and pointed to the team’s involvement with the Academy as well as praising the “great job” done by Susie Wolff.

“We have a big rivalry (with Mercedes) on track, but we haven’t raised any official complaint, either about Susie or Toto or Mercedes to the FAI,” Horner said on Sky Sports News.

“In fact, Red Bull has been the team which has got most involved with Formula One Academy from its inception, to the point that between the two Red Bull owned teams we will be entering three cars.

“We have been working closely with Susie, who has been doing a great job on Formula One Academy.

“I think we, like others, were quite surprised at the statement that came out last night, but it certainly wasn’t instigated or required or set off by Red Bull.”

Pressed again over any possible involvement across the organisation’s group, which also includes the AlphaTauri F1 team, Horner said: “We have not raised any official complaint or made any requests to the FAI or to FOM (Formula One Management).

“Indeed, we have been working very closely with Susie on the Formula One Academy – we are the only group that is going to be entering three cars in the academy for 2024.

“It is great work that they are doing with the academy and we are certainly exited about that.

“As far as the other teams, I can’t talk on behalf of others. This is an FAI thing, they have taken this action and, as I say, (it is) certainly nothing to do with Red Bull.”

Later on Wednesday, other F1 teams also went on record to distance themselves from the reported allegations.

A statement from Ferrari read: “We can confirm that we have not made any complaint to the FIA regarding the allegation of information of a confidential nature being passed between an F1 team principal and a member of FOM staff.

“We are pleased and proud to support F1 Academy and its managing director through our commitment to sponsor an entrant in our liveries from next season.”

Using the same wording in statements posted on social media, McLaren, Williams and Haas also rejected suggestions the team had been involved.

Mercedes also released a statement in response, which said it “wholly rejected” what had been alleged.

A statement from Formula One, meanwhile, said it had “complete confidence” the allegations were wrong.

“We have robust processes and procedures that ensure the segregation of information and responsibilities in the event of any potential conflict of interest,” the statement added.

“We are confident that no member of our team has made any unauthorised disclosure to a team principal and would caution anyone against making imprudent and serious allegations without substance.”

Lewis Hamilton’s boss Toto Wolff has conceded Mercedes will have to scale Mount Everest to topple Max Verstappen’s Red Bull team next season.

Mercedes clung on to second place in the constructors’ championship by the skin of their teeth – and a £10million cash boost – as Verstappen ended the most dominant season in Formula One history with another victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The Dutchman, taking his 19th win from 22 rounds, finished 17 seconds clear of team-mate Sergio Perez. But, mercifully for Mercedes, the Mexican driver was demoted to fourth following a five-second penalty for a collision with Lando Norris.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was elevated to second with Mercedes’ George Russell third. Lewis Hamilton finished ninth in the other black-liveried machine.

Had Perez outscored Russell, Mercedes and Ferrari would have been tied, with the Prancing Horse second in the team standings by virtue of Carlos Sainz’s win in Singapore.

But following Perez’s sanction, Mercedes ended the campaign three points clear of Ferrari to land a £105million reward, rather than £95m.

However, it marked a second straight season without a victory for Hamilton – a losing streak which now stands at 45 races – and Mercedes’ first winless campaign in a dozen years.

They finished an eye-watering 413 points behind Red Bull, who have long since turned their focus to next year’s machine. Last season, Mercedes were 244 points behind the world champions.

“Red Bull won by 17 seconds today, and haven’t touched the car since July or August, so you can pretty much guess where they’re going to be next year,” said a despondent Hamilton.

Picking up the baton, Wolff added: “From Lewis’ perspective, he had a bad weekend. Fact. But that doesn’t do anything on him being the greatest driver in the world.

“If we are able to give him a car, he will be fighting for a world championship. I have no doubt. But it is clear if you have a car like we have now, you are not at ease with it.

“Red Bull started the new regulations in 2022 with a massive advantage and they have been able to maintain it.

“We have a lot of respect for their achievements – from the engineering side, and the driver – and beating them under the current regulations is against the odds. Mount Everest is in front of us.”

Hamilton and Mercedes will hope a brand new design will fire them back to winning ways following their no-sidepod flop abandoned on the eve of the opening race in Bahrain.

Wolff continued: “We had to be honest that this car was never going to be good enough to fight for a world championship. We took the decision in April to go back to the drawing board and come up with something different for next year.

“We are changing the concept. We are moving away from how we laid out the chassis, the weight distribution, the airflow, literally every component has been changed because only by doing that do we have a chance. You could get it wrong also. Everything is possible.”

Mercedes have carried Hamilton to six of his record-equalling seven world championships. But the 38-year-old will head for the off-season wondering if he will ever win again, let alone mount a season-long championship challenge.

With only minor tweaks to the sport’s technical rulebook before a complete overhaul in regulations in 2026, Hamilton has already expressed his fear that Verstappen will be untouchable for the next two years.

Wolff added: “We have a board in our factory that shows all the world constructors’ championships since 1958. The table runs until 2050 so there are 27 open. And I would like to look back in 20 years and see many more Mercedes stars.

“I hate retrospective views. But when we look back and consider the decade we had – second, first, first, first, first, first, first, first, first, third, second – and when you look at it from that perspective, you say, ‘that was OK’.

“But from a micro-view there is one guy (Verstappen) that has won 19 races, and that of course, is not good enough.”

Lewis Hamilton said he could not wait for the season to end after he qualified only 11th for Sunday’s finale in Abu Dhabi – leaving Mercedes on the backfoot to salvage second in the Formula One world championship.

As Max Verstappen put his Red Bull on pole position for the final race of his all-conquering campaign – with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc runner-up and McLaren’s Oscar Piastri third – Hamilton was left staring at another abysmal performance in his underperforming machinery.

Indeed, Hamilton, six tenths behind Verstappen and a third-of-a-second back from team-mate George Russell, who qualified fourth, even claimed there was something wrong with his car.

His failure to progress to Q3 means the fight between Mercedes and Ferrari for second place in the constructors’ championship, worth nearly £10million, hangs in the balance.

The Silver Arrows head their Italian rivals by just four points ahead of Sunday’s race in the desert. And Leclerc finished ahead of both Russell and Hamilton to hand Ferrari the initiative.

“I don’t have any answers,” said Hamilton, who gloomily predicted his Q2 demise here 24 hours previously.

“It is just a very unpredictable car and it has been all year. I wouldn’t say I am relieved, but I am definitely happy it is nearly over.”

Hamilton’s comments were echoed by Toto Wolff.

“I’m fed up with having explanations as to why it didn’t go well,” said the Mercedes team principal.

“I’m happy that this was the last qualifying of the season and we will be back with a new car.”

Hamilton’s poor result came after it emerged that his father – and one-time manager Anthony – had enquired about a seat for his son at Red Bull.

Hamilton has recorded just one podium in his last six appearances following Mercedes’ tumble down the grid and he faces an uphill task to salvage a respectable result at the Yas Marina Circuit.

“There is something not right with this car, mate,” said the 38-year-old on the radio as he shook his head.

“The car is more inconsistent than ever before,” he later explained. “It is up-and-down from the moment you hit the brakes, the moment you turn, the moment you hit the apex, it is massively out of balance and hard to predict what is going to happen.

“George and I set our cars up the same, but they don’t read the same so there is something not right on our side. I have been off all weekend and struggled. Eleventh…it takes some good going for me not to get into Q3.”

Hamilton is third in the individual standings, 317 points Verstappen, with the Dutchman the overwhelming favourite to claim a remarkable 19th victory from the 22 rounds.

Mercedes are a staggering 430 points behind the Dutchman’s Red Bull team, who have won every race bar one this year.

Mercedes were handed a minor boost after Carlos Sainz was a surprise eliminated in Q1. Sainz bemoaned traffic for his lowly 16th grid slot.

But Leclerc’s improvement on his final run, to finish just 0.139 seconds behind Verstappen, provides the Prancing Horse with a spring in their step.

“The target is to beat Mercedes, so I hope Carlos gets a good start and joins me in the fight,” said Leclerc.

“Let’s look to put both of our cars in front of Mercedes because finishing second in the constructors is all that matters to me.”

Elsewhere, Lando Norris qualified a disappointing fifth after he got out of shape on his last lap.

“I don’t know why it happened,” he said. “I’ve not done that all weekend so it’s frustrating. I’m just doing a s*** job on Saturday.”

Asked if he was being too hard on himself, the 24-year-old replied: “Not at all. I was fighting for second and I end up fifth because of a stupid mistake. I’m too soft on myself.”

Lewis Hamilton said there was something wrong with his Mercedes after he qualified only 11th for Sunday’s season finale in Abu Dhabi.

As Max Verstappen put his Red Bull on pole position for the final race of his all-conquering campaign – with Charles Leclerc second and Oscar Piastri third – Hamilton was left starting at another poor performance in his underperforming machinery.

The seven-time world champion, facing up to a second season without a victory, finished six tenths behind Verstappen and a third-of-a-second back from team-mate George Russell, who qualified fourth.

Hamilton’s failure to progress to Q3 – as he gloomily predicted here on Friday night – leaves the fight between Mercedes and Ferrari for second place in the constructors’ championship firmly in the balance.

The Silver Arrows head their Italian rivals by just four points ahead of Sunday’s finale in the desert. And Leclerc finished ahead of both Russell and Hamilton to hand Ferrari the initiative.

However, Mercedes were handed a minor boost after Carlos Sainz was a surprise eliminee in Q1.

A day after he crashed out in practice, Sainz bemoaned traffic for his lowly 16th grid slot.

It emerged earlier this week that Hamilton’s father and one-time manager Anthony had enquired about a seat for his son at Red Bull.

Hamilton has recorded just one podium in his last six appearances following Mercedes’ tumble down the grid, and he faces an uphill task to salvage a respectable result at the Yas Marina Circuit.

“There is something not right with this car, mate,” said the 38-year-old as he headed back to the pits shaking his head.

Hamilton is third in the standings, an extraordinary 317 points Verstappen, with the Dutchman starting Sunday’s 58-lap race as the overwhelming favourite to claim a remarkable 19th victory from the 22 rounds this year.

Verstappen finished 0.139 seconds ahead of Leclerc, while McLaren’s Lando Norris was a disappointing fifth. The British driver got out of shape on his final lap in the last sector, losing him considerable time.

“The whole weekend has been a struggle,” said Verstappen. “But we improved the car for qualifying so I am very happy to be on pole.”

Quizzed about Ferrari’s battle against Mercedes, Leclerc said: “I hope it is going to go well.

“The target is to beat them, so I hope Carlos get a good start and joins me in the fight.

“Let’s look to put both of our cars in front of Mercedes because finishing second in the constructors is all that matters to me.”

Elsewhere, Yuki Tsunoda impressed to take sixth spot for AlphaTauri, one place ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso. Sergio Perez’s final lap was deleted for exceeding track limits, leaving him in ninth.

Lewis Hamilton fears Mercedes could lose second spot to Ferrari in the constructors’ championship after he admitted it will be a scramble to qualify in the top 10 for Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc topped practice at the Yas Marina Circuit, seeing off McLaren’s Lando Norris by just 0.043 seconds, with world champion Max Verstappen third.

But George Russell and Hamilton finished only sixth and eighth respectively for Mercedes, with the latter half a second behind Leclerc.

Mercedes, who are facing up to their first winless season since 2011, hold only a four-point lead over Ferrari heading into Sunday’s finale in the desert.

And Hamilton said: “It was not the greatest of days. We have had difficult qualifying sessions this year, and getting out of Q1 and into Q2 has always been a tough battle, and getting into Q3 is a challenge.

“The work tomorrow is to try and get into Q3. But it is going to be close.”

Hamilton completed only four timed laps on Friday. He made way for the team’s Danish junior driver Frederik Vesti in the opening running, before a combined 30-minute delay wiped out half of the one-hour second session after Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg both crashed out.

Russell fared better than Hamilton, but he still finished three tenths behind Leclerc.

However, it was not a day without incident for Ferrari following Sainz’s crash.

A week after a loose drain cover tore through his Ferrari in Las Vegas, Sainz was in the wars again, but on this occasion it was through driver error.

Sainz – who appeared to be put off by another car arriving from the pits – lost control of his machine through turn three and ended up in the barrier.

Although the Spaniard was unharmed in the high-speed smash after just eight and a half minutes, he sustained significant damage to his car, with the sidepods, floor, rear suspension and front wing of his Ferrari all destroyed.

Sainz’s impact also left the barrier in a mess, and a 22-minute delay ensued as the tyre wall was repaired.

But only moments after the running restarted, the red flag was out again – this time after Nico Hulkenberg crashed on the exit of turn one.

On cold tyres, the German was too hasty on the throttle, sliding into the barrier before pulling up in his wounded machine.

The stoppages arrived as a blow to half the grid who sat out the opening session as 10 rookie drivers – including three Britons – were earlier blooded at the Yas Marina Circuit.

British drivers Zak O’Sullivan, 18, and Jake Dennis, 28, made their Formula One weekend debuts for Williams and Red Bull respectively, while Ollie Bearman, 18, who in Mexico became the youngest debutant from Britain at a Grand Prix, was handed his second practice appearance by Haas.

Dennis, in Verstappen’s Red Bull machine which Hamilton has described as the fastest ever seen in F1, finished 16th of the 20 runners, 1.1 secs off the pace.

O’Sullivan was 18th – seven tenths behind Williams’ Logan Sargeant – with Bearman 20th and last, albeit only a tenth slower than Kevin Magnussen in the other Haas.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc edged out Lando Norris in practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which was red-flagged on two occasions.

A combined 30-minute delay wiped out half of the one-hour session after Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg both crashed out.

Leclerc saw off Norris by just 0.043 seconds, with Max Verstappen third, 0.173 sec off the pace. George Russell and Lewis Hamilton finished sixth and eighth respectively for Mercedes.

A week after he smashed into a loose drain cover in Las Vegas, Sainz was in the wars again, but on this occasion it was through driver error.

Sainz – who appeared to be put off by another car arriving from the pits – lost control of his machine through turn three and ended up in the barrier.

Although the Spaniard was unharmed in the high-speed smash – with the running just eight-and-a-half minutes old – he sustained significant damage to his car; with the sidepods, floor, rear suspension and front wing of his Ferrari all destroyed.

Sainz’s impact also left the barrier in a mess and a 22-minute delay ensued as the tyre wall was repaired.

But only moments after the running re-started, the red flag was out again – this time after Nico Hulkenberg crashed on the exit of turn one.

On cold tyres, the German was too hasty on the throttle, sliding into the barrier before stopping in his wounded machine.

The stoppages arrived as a blow to half the grid who sat out the opening session as 10 rookie drivers were blooded at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Mercedes are looking to hang on to second in the constructors’ championship and are only four points ahead of Ferrari with one race to go.

And the troubled team will be alarmed by Leclerc’s speed as the Monegasque, on pole position in Las Vegas, topped the order.

Russell finished three tenths adrift of Leclerc while Hamilton, who made way for the team’s Danish junior driver Frederik Vesti in the opening running, was half-a-second back.

Mercedes’ sluggish pace also leaves the grid’s once-dominant team facing up to a winless season – their first since 2011.

In the day’s first running, British drivers Zak O’Sullivan, 18, and Jake Dennis, 28, made their Formula One weekend debuts for Williams and Red Bull respectively.

Ollie Bearman, 18, who in Mexico became the youngest British debutant at a Grand Prix, was handed his second practice appearance by Haas.

Dennis, in Verstappen’s Red Bull machine which Hamilton has described as the fastest ever seen in F1, finished 16th of the 20 runners, 1.1 sec off the pace.

O’Sullivan was 18th – seven tenths behind Williams’ Logan Sargeant – with Bearman 20th and last, albeit only a tenth slower than Kevin Magnussen in the other Haas.

Lewis Hamilton cannot be blamed for considering a blockbuster switch to Red Bull following Mercedes’ failure to provide him with a winning machine, Christian Horner has claimed.

Red Bull team principal Horner confirmed on Friday that Hamilton’s father Anthony made an inquiry about the availability of a seat alongside Max Verstappen at the grid’s all-conquering team.

Verstappen has won the past three world championships, while Hamilton last took a victory at the penultimate round of the 2021 season in Saudi Arabia.

“I have known Anthony Hamilton for 15 years and I don’t think he was enquiring about himself to come and drive,” said Horner of Anthony, who managed his son in the formative years of his career.

“I don’t know who represents who, but with the surname you would think they are reasonably close.

“Anthony is a good guy, a proud racing father and inevitably when drivers go through tough spots – and Lewis has not won a Grand Prix for two years – questions will be asked up and down the paddock.

“Lewis is the most successful driver of all time and he hasn’t won a grand prix since 2021. You have not got to be a rocket scientist to work that out and I doubt I was the only one that an inquiry was made to.”

Red Bull will head into the season finale having failed to win just one of the 21 rounds so far. Verstappen has triumphed on 18 occasions – a record for any driver during a single campaign.

Hamilton’s Mercedes team are in a state of flux, but the seven-time world champion signed a two-year deal with the Silver Arrows, worth £100million, in August. Sergio Perez is contracted to Red Bull for 2024.

On Thursday, Hamilton denied seeking a move to Red Bull and claimed it was instead Horner who approached him.

“I have checked with everyone in my team and nobody has spoken to them. However, he (Horner) did reach out to me earlier on in the year about meeting up,” Hamilton said.

Horner added: “It is entirely normal for drivers, drivers’ representatives and drivers’ parents to have different conversations during the year.

“There was never a seat available and there was never any engagement. There are many drivers we hear from during the course of the year.

“We have not had any serious discussions with Lewis and there was never a seat available.”

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